Oct 1

The Destruction of the S.M.S. Cormoran and the First U.S. Shot Fired in the First World War

Thursday, October 1, 2015 4:00 AM

By

As strange as it may seem, the very first shot fired by the United States in the First World War did not occur anywhere near the battlefields of Europe. Instead, as Commander Owen Bartlett, USN related in the following excerpts from his August, 1931 Proceedings article, the shot was made nearly half a world away in the harbor of Guam.


 

“The first violent hostile act of the war between the United States and Germany probably was the destruction of the S.M.S. Cormoran by her own commander in Apra Harbor, Guam. To those actively participating, the episode loomed large in interest, and in tragedy, owing chiefly to the unique situation which, over a long period of time, had permitted the friendly intercourse between the personnel of the ship and the colony ashore. In a large community, this friendly interest between the ship’s company of an interned vessel and the authorities of the neutral nation could not have been feasible; but in Guam, no one could get away, and the addition of cultured foreign officers was a distinct boon to the small group that formed the local society. A number of the German officers and several of the chief petty officers lived ashore. Moreover the enlisted men were granted regular liberty, more or less restricted to certain localities.

guam-harbor

The harbor at Guam, in which the S.M.S. Cormoran was interned. USNI Archives.

“S.M.S. Cormoran that figures in this yarn had originally been a Russian liner, captured by the German gunboat of that name. The gunboat had been cruising the South Seas when war broke in 1914. She picked up the officers and crew of a German survey and scientific ship; scuttled the ship; captured the Russian; and took the latter into Tsingtao, where she was reconditioned along with the Emden, Prinz Eitel Ereidrich and others, and, as the “new” S.M.S. Cormoran, started out on a career of commerce destruction. Luck was not with her and she ran short of coal.

“Her captain took her into a hidden harbor, known to him and a few other white men, in the South Sea, and sent three officers in a small boat to Guam to dicker for coal, or, failing that, to send a cable to the German ambassador in Washington, asking assistance in the matter of fuel. How the personnel of the ship subsisted on coconuts and fish, manufactured soap, and even brewed beer was told afterward. The small boat, after a trip of some 600 miles, reached Guam safely, and was promptly interned. No cable was sent to the German ambassador. The Cormoran, having waited more than sufficient time for the return of her emissaries, set sail for Guam, using coconut husks for fuel, and slipped into Apra Harbor while a Japanese cruiser was patrolling the other side of the island. The ship was not allowed to leave.

. . . .

“That night [April 5th, 1917] the coded cable came announcing that diplomatic relations with Germany had been broken.

“All the officers and enlisted personnel of the Cormoran were notified to return to their vessel. Within twenty-four hours all communication with the ship was severed except for the supply of provisions and the necessary official correspondence; outlying stations commanding the harbor had been occupied with men, searchlights, and field guns; a perpetual patrol of the harbor had been instituted, and plans laid for eventualities. German resourcefulness and ingenuity were not underestimated. . . . .

“Under the provisions of international law the personnel of an interned vessel may be removed to a “fortress.” There was no fortress nor any other place in Guam where the personnel, in their status of interned persons, could be fittingly housed. Their own ship was the only available solution. . . .

“That particular hour of 1:30 p.m., on April 6, 1917, witnessed the signing of an epoch-making document in the White House. In Guam, on the other side of the world, almost simultaneously, a short, coded ‘flash’ on the cable came to the “Governor and Military Commander,” Captain Roy C. Smith, U. S. Navy—a ‘flash’ that meant war.

“A telephone tinkled once in my room. The unmistakable voice came quietly over the phone: ‘Please come to the office, Bartlett.’ I knew.

“As the brief reports came in from the various stations that orders had been received, the official car, a Ford touring with the coat of arms of the United States emblazoned proudly on its panels, drew up outside. Lieutenant W. F. Lafrenz, U. S. Navy, who was to accompany me to the harbor, joined, and then the governor handed me three papers.

“Since I believe that they are unique as being the only documents of similar nature used during our participation in the war, [one is] quoted verbatim:

Naval Government of Guam Government House, Guam, April 7, 1917.

 

From: Governor and Military Commander of Guam

 

To: Senior Naval Aid

Subject: Orders re surrender of S.M.S. Cormoran.

  1. War exists between the United States and Germany.
  2. Proceed to the Cormoran under a flag of truce. Inform her Commanding Officer of the fact stated in par. I hereof, and demand that he surrender his command to you as my representative.
  3. In case of his compliance arrange with him specific terms of surrender following the provisions of the Laws of War as accepted by the United States and take duplicate copies of the agreement. Arrange for immediate transfer of all armament.
  4. In case of surrender, arrange to turn over the prisoners of war to the commander of the Shore Force and to turn over the surrendered ship to the commander of Harbor Patrol, who will detail a prize master and prize crew to take charge of the ship.
  5. In case of refusal to comply with your demands inform the Commanding Officer that he and his command will be treated as an enemy.

Roy C. Smith
Governor and Military Commander of Guam

“The governor shook hands, wished me luck, and we were off on the lovely 5-mile drive along the shore and through coconut palms to the port of Piti.

. . . .

“Evidently our errand had been understood as we approached, for the partial “field day’’ (weekly scouring and furbishing) was interrupted and on the ship there was general scurrying about.

“When I reached the deck, however, about 7:57 a.m., the long broad starboard gangway that in other days had been a passenger promenade was deserted, and the officer of the deck only was there at the head of the ladder, standing in rigid military attitude, to greet me.

“Requesting permission to speak to the commanding officer, I was escorted forward along this promenade to the captain’s cabin. Entering the cabin I faced the captain, Korvetten-kapitan Zuckschwerdt; the executive officer, Kapitan-leutnant Coulmann, who were standing together, and was followed into the cabin by the aid, Oberleut zur See Mueller. From the corner of my eye, I saw that all the ports framed blond, bearded German faces of the crew, with more faces beyond.

“I addressed the captain, this man who at our last meeting had been my social host, this man who seemed to have shrunk, to have visibly greyed, to have aged many years: ‘I have a letter to present to you, sir,’ and handed him the demand for surrender quoted above. . . .

“The captain then stepped past me to the door of his cabin and closed it. As the door shut, a guttural, throaty yell of exultation, “Cormoran! Cormoran!” went up on the deck outside, the faces disappeared from the ports, there was the quick thud, thud of many feet running, mingled with shouts and cheers.

“Standing near the door of the cabin, the captain, very erect now, chose his words deliberately and carefully: ‘In reply to this letter, I state that this is an unarmed and defenseless ship, incapable of resistance. I am willing to turn over the officers and crew of the Cormoran to your charge, but I cannot turn over the ship!’

“‘Then I have to inform you, sir, that; when your answer is received, you will be treated as an enemy, and your vessel as an enemy vessel.’

. . . .

Cormoran

S.M.S. Cormoran, as the Russian liner Rjasan, in 1909.

“Saluting, I started toward the door, which Mueller opened, and leaving them there in the cabin, crossed in the athwartship passage to the starboard side and stepped on deck. Way aft, the crew were shouting and singing, a band was playing, cries of ‘Cormoran! Cormoran!’ came distinct from the jumble of sounds.

“The officer of the deck saluted without a word in answer to my salute and customary: ‘With your permission, I am leaving the ship, sir.’

“The sight from the ladder was not reassuring. Astern were many Germans in the water; others were jumping; boxes, suitcases, life-preservers, etc., were spewing overside in a shower—and in the midst of it, lying off the quarter near by, was the barge.

“The craft leaped ahead as the coxswain sighted me. On the ship, cheers rang out— three great cheers—’Cormoran! Cormoran! Cormoran!’ Jumping as the barge came by, I left the ship.

“We had gone toward Piti at full speed perhaps a hundred yards and were just well clear of the bow, when there came the dull heavy shock of muffled under-water explosion. Red flames with little smoke shot up around the bridge of the Cormoran; pieces of debris rose, arched, fell; the bridge and region of the captain’s cabin popped up, crumpled, collapsed.

“The stricken ship settled by the stern, slowly listing heavily to starboard. For a moment the port half of the deck was exposed to view, the ship lying almost horizontally on her starboard beam ends. Then, as one blinked an eye there was nothing but a small column of water hanging suspended, a bubbling seething area of surface disturbance, a bit of flotsam shooting up like a fish jumping and falling back with a splash, two or three laden boats, and heads, hundreds of heads, bobbing here and there.

“Men clinging to bits of wreckage, oars, life preservers, chests, were swimming toward the shore in all directions; pigeons, apparently carriers released from the ship, hovered over the water, circled, and were gone; men clinging to bits of flotsam with one arm, put bottles to their lips and drank from brown bottles, square colorless bottles; the black men of New Guinea, some carrying bundles dry on their heads, some pushing small chests, paddled off businesslike toward the nearest land. And then a voice was lifted, a strong true deep voice singing Deutchland über alles, and the chorus went up from many a throat.

. . .

“Eventually, all but five were picked up, and the bodies of these were later recovered. Two others died that morning, one from heart failure, and one from the effects of a blow of a box thrown from the Cormoran. These seven men were buried in the naval cemetery at Agana with full military honors, and a cement monument designed and made by the Germans marks their graves.

“The rescued Germans, now ‘prisoners of war,’ numbering about 350, were taken to the dock at Piti, and turned over to the custody of the marines.

“At this time an incident occurred which seems worth recording. The captain of the Cormoran had been picked up by his own power boat after he had jumped overboard from the ship. He, with a couple of his officers, and the men that they had rescued, was asked to proceed from the harbor to the dock under their own power, and no guard was put in the boat. Though I cannot vouch for the story from personal observation, I was told by eyewitnesses that, as the boat came alongside of the dock, the captain ordered the engine demolished. The engineer seized a large sledge and thoroughly smashed the engine. A marine sentry seeing the pantomime, and sizing up the situation, snapped his gun to his shoulder, sighted on the engineer, but, as he fired, the muzzle of the gun was thrown up violently by a marine officer who stood near, and the shot went harmlessly overhead.

. . . as he fired, the muzzle of the gun was thrown up violently by a marine officer who stood near, and the shot went harmlessly overhead.

“The German enlisted personnel were placed in a prison camp, hastily thrown up, and the officers segregated in permanent hutments of a marine camp. Clothes were provided, and the wants of the prisoners of war tended with meticulous care—even to the matter of pay as prescribed for persons in similar circumstances. Three weeks later an Army transport took these men to the United States.”


 

The Navy later attempted to salvage the Cormoran, and its bell can be seen at the Naval Academy Museum. Today, the wreck is a popular dive site.